Monday, June 29, 2015

"Love," "Freedom," "Dignity": What Do They Mean?

As June draws to a close, I am drawn to reflect upon the profound and crucially important continuity between the teaching of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si' and that of his recent predecessors in the Petrine ministry.

It is striking to reflect upon the prophetic witness of the successors of Saint Peter to an authentic view of the human person, a view that is so important for shedding light on many problems of our time. This testimony by the popes and the bishops of the world in union with them, drawn from the providential insights of the Second Vatican Council, continues to be a beacon of light for those who are searching for what it means to be a human being in the midst of the expansion and development, the wild upheaval, the chaotic shifting and tumult of this period in human history.

So often we articulate deeply diverse proposals for human life in this world using the same words, such as "dignity" and "freedom" and "love," or "growth," "progress," "community," "relationship," "maturity."

How is it that we use the same words to express radically different approaches to human life and human activity? Perhaps we use the same words with different meanings. Or maybe sometimes we use the words, but without their necessary context, which results in their losing coherence and even being manipulated.

How do we know the meaning of these words that we use to speak about the human person? This question points out the great significance of the prophetic witness of the popes and the Church in our time.

The popes who have shepherded the Church during the gradual emergence of the post-modern world -- this yet-unknown New Epoch of global interdependence, unprecedented human power, and the need for a new and deeper responsibility -- have stressed the same crucial points about the dignity of human persons, their dependence upon God, and their place in the world created by God.

At the end of this post are some passages taken from a homily of Pope Saint John Paul II over a quarter of a century ago (1989). John Paul has the same concerns as Francis, as these and many other passages from his teaching make clear.

In particular he points to a foundational and defining issue that Francis also identifies, and that I wish to unfold briefly here in this post. It is the attempt to articulate human freedom and responsibility without reference to the deepest truth about the human being, namely that the human person is radically given to his or herself. The human person is created by God.

If we forget God, if we live as if God did not exist, we let go of the fundamental basis for everything we say about ourselves. We may use the same terms -- human dignity, the human person, freedom, relationship, love, happiness -- but these words only have meaning in the context of an understanding that we are created persons.

Remembering that we are created persons means affirming the radical relationship with God that originates and sustains the gift of existence that expresses God's love for each of us, the love that gives me to myself.

And it affirms the call from God, the human vocation that leads us to the fullness of our true identity as unique human persons by bringing us to the fulfillment of love and freedom with Him.

Insofar as we forget that we are created persons and "live as if God did not exist," however, our words about ourselves drift away from their genuine significance. The same vocabulary -- human dignity, the human person, freedom, relationship, love, happiness -- becomes unmoored from basic human experience, and the true elements of our perception of reality begin to fragment.

When we forget that we are created persons, we shake the foundation of our being. We attempt to withdraw ourselves from the central relationship that defines us. Thus, a variety of confused perceptions, prejudices, emotional reactions and fears can easily become mixed into our understanding of ourselves and therefore into what we mean by the words that refer to the human person and core human values. 

The same words can thereby take on different meanings. They can become pretexts for desperate efforts of self-affirmation, or defensive words that we use to protect our ever-widening isolation from others whom we mistrust, or whom we wish to avoid because of divisions, resentment, emotional pain, or just ordinary selfishness.

Thus, it is not difficult to find ourselves in solitude and plunged into an incomprehensible and radically unstable experience of life.

We may endure this agonizing loneliness and confusion for a time. Usually, however, we seek out or stumble upon others who we think can support us in defining our identity. But we cannot understand ourselves if we seal off our own existence from the absolute, secure Source that establishes and sustains us.

Too often we have forgotten that Source, or pushed Him to the margins of our awareness. We have reduced Him to an abstraction or perhaps domesticated Him into a background figure who provides comfort, whose agency is limited and defined by our own measure. Or, we have never known anything about Him, and have never responded to the provocations in life that could have awakened our interest in seeking Him. We can thus become closed off, confused, anesthetized, or asleep in front of reality.

Insofar as we fail to live some kind of vital openness to this all-good, loving, creative, radically affirming Source of our human dignity -- the Source of the real identity and preciousness of each one of us -- we live without roots. We become disconnected from the original dynamic impetus that constitutes our freedom and makes our lives human: the search and the desire for the Mystery that sustains everything.

When peoples and cultures cut themselves off from this search, they lose the sense of who they are. They attempt to "search for their own selves" but they don't know where to look, and they often conclude that their only hope is to create their own "value," using various inadequate or even arbitrary criteria.

How often we live this way today, trying to invent ourselves and invest ourselves with value. But this is an anxious, distressing, and ultimately futile project. Life "works" only to the extent that we recognize and live with a vital awareness of the gift that originates and sustains reality and ourselves -- the gift that bestows meaning, and that awakens and draws forth our fascination with everything, our wonder at the beauty of things, the universe, and our own tremendous being as created persons.

Nevertheless, we forget, and we are tempted to try to manipulate the world and ourselves. We try to create the meaning and purpose of our lives -- our identity -- relying solely on our own ingenuity, impulses, and whims. We may succeed in putting on a spectacle, but we cannot generate satisfaction or any enduring confidence with these self-definitions. We will always be haunted by the anxious sense of precariousness, fragility, and ultimately the failure of our inadequate projections. We may be able to suppress this from our consciousness and skim through our days on the surface of shallow satisfactions, but it always remains beneath our awareness like an awful, gaping hole: "This is not real. This is not who I am. This is not... enough!"

Thus, when we live the project of self-invention and self-validation, we also live (paradoxically) with a desperate hunger for affirmation from others. Seldom do we try to stand alone in the madness of an openly anarchic affirmation of ourselves by ourselves. We feel the need for affirmation from others. We want to hear that we are good, that we have value, that we deserve to be loved. This need for affirmation is profoundly human, but it becomes distorted when we subject it to our project. We start to measure the authenticity of affirmation from others -- the genuineness of the love others offer to us -- by whether or not it endorses the artifice of our limited, self-conceived identity and the ideas implicated by it.

This distortion of the need for affirmation leads us to search for places and groups outside ourselves that correspond to and support our ideas. Or, in times of confusion, we look for places where the affirmation of others resonates with our fractured self-image, but also seems to restore roots to our existence. Eventually we are willing to allow the affirming group to impose its own definition on us. We come to depend on this group-identity for a sense of coherence in life and for our understanding of the meaning of being human.

There are no lack of places, groups, and human social constructions that we can adhere to in this dysfunctional way: political structures, ideologies, nations, tribes, cults, corporations, social status, wealth, entitlement, resentment, and lifestyles that appear to satisfy but in reality thwart the actual humanity that has been given to us. We take up whatever seems to feed this need for affirmation, and we set ourselves against anything or anyone that appears to threaten it.

When this happens, there is no more room for discussion of what our words about "human person" and "dignity" and "love" actually mean. Instead we form into factions, seek security in our power, and inevitably make war against our rivals. Even the beautiful word "peace" becomes a mask for violence when we try to live as if God did not exist.

It is entirely different if we remember God, the Living God who creates us, holds us, loves us with an unshakable firmness, crafts each one of us down to the depths of our own freedom.

When we remember that the Good God is the Source of who we are, then we turn to Him, we seek Him, we open up to the mystery of our own destiny, we beg Him to show us His face, and we trust in Him.

Then we begin to discover the reality of our own identity, our dignity, and our greatness. We begin to become truly free.

Here are selections of the homily of Saint John Paul II given on June 4, 1989:

God is all-holy, he is the Creator who gives us life and who makes all that exists in the universe. We are creatures and his children, in need of healing because of our sins.
[Yet] it is easy to lose sight of the Creator, from whose loving hands all things come. It is easy to live as if God did not exist. Indeed, there is a powerful attraction to such an attitude, for it might seem that acknowledging God as the origin and end of all things lessens human independence and places unacceptable limits on human action. But when we forget God we soon lose sight of the deeper meaning of our existence, we no longer know who we are.
Is it not fundamental for our psychological and social well-being to hear God’s voice in the wonderful harmony of the universe? Is it not in fact liberating to recognize that the stability, truth, goodness and order which the human mind increasingly discovers in the cosmos are a reflection of the unity, truth, goodness and beauty of the Creator himself?
A radical challenge facing the human family ... [today] is to use the earth’s resources wisely and responsibly, which means with respect for the limits to which these resources are necessarily subject. To do this is to respect the will of the Creator.
And in human affairs the challenge is to build a world of justice, peace and love, where the life and equal dignity of every human being, without discrimination, is defended and sustained. To do this is to recognize the face of God in every human face, and especially in the tears and sufferings of those who long to be loved or justly treated.
Every act of goodness is an important contribution to the changes we all wish to see.... All our good actions constitute a victory for justice, peace and human dignity. But our selfishness and lack of moral courage lead to the persistence and even strengthening of injustice in the world.
The entire Good News of our salvation [is a] witness to the wonderful Gift of God himself, expressed in the Word of life. God bestows on humanity an absolutely free gift – a share in his own divine nature. He endows his creatures with eternal life in Christ.
Man is graced by God... far beyond anything that [we by ourselves] could humanly achieve or even desire, for the gift is truly supernatural. The wonder of this gift is that it makes it possible for us to achieve the object of our deepest longings: to live forever in intimate union with God who is the source of all good.